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Early Bloomers

When scientists in both the United States and Japan figured out how to trick plants into producing petals in place of leaves, some researchers began to call it botanical alchemy. Although it's not as profitable as turning lead into gold, the discovery is a gold mine for botanists who study the evolution of flowering plants. For more than 200 years, researchers have theorized that each part of a flower evolved from leaves at some point in its history. But figuring out how they did so has not been easy. "Among the 20,000 to 30,000 genes, how do you find the right one?" asks Marty Yanofsky, a plant geneticist at the University of California at San Diego and coauthor of one of the studies. Now that researchers have figured out which genes are responsible for the leaf-to-petal switch in Arabidopsis—the mustard plant family and the first family to be completely sequenced—other botanists can track down similar genes in other plants, which may shed light on how a diverse array of plants, from roses to pine trees to corn, evolved and began to bloom. — Lauren Gravitz

ArabidopsisPhotograph courtesy of Marty Yanofsky/University of California at San Diego

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